Immigrant blacks outperform natives

Africans outperform African-Americans in Seattle schools: Even the children of destitute Somali refugees do better.

The district compared blacks who speak English at home with those who speak other languages at home but aren’t considered English Language Learners.

Amharic-speaking students from Ethiopia scored the highest, nearly reaching the district average in reading. Somalis did worse than other African immigrants, but much better than English-only blacks.

• Only 36 percent of black students who speak English at home passed their grade’s math test, while 47 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Other black ethnic groups did even better, although still lower than the district average of 70 percent.

• In reading, 56 percent of black students who speak English passed, while 67 percent of Somali-speaking students passed. Again, other black ethnic groups did better, though still lower than the district average of 78 percent.

Black immigrants attend college at a much higher rate than U.S.-born blacks or whites, concluded a John Hopkins study in 2009. The immigrants were educated, successful people in their home countries, researchers said.

However, that’s not true of the very poor Somalis who found refuge in Seattle.

Seattle School Board member Betty Patu, who has worked for decades with community groups serving students of color, said she has noticed that all immigrant families, regardless of socioeconomic status, place high value on education.

“Their motivation is different,” she said. “When you leave your country, you come here to do something. You don’t come here just to sit around and do nothing.”

In short, it’s the culture, stupid.

However, Marty McLaren, a board member and former teacher, blames “a culture of low expectations . . .  dating back to the days of slavery” for American blacks’ poor performance. Faced with institutionalized racism, students give up, she said.



About Joanne


  1. I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to black students. I think many of the most successful students in the US have at least one immigrant parent.

    In my opinion, the US culture is in favor of college degrees, but anti-intellectual. How many little boys want to be a chemist? How many want to be a star quarterback? How many little girls want to be a lawyer or teacher? How many want to be a singer or supermodel?

    It is the culture. For all students, it comes down to the culture.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    I think many immigrants can clearly see the opportunity that America provides: free public education k-12, college opportunity for almost everyone, real career and middle class potential for those that want it. They know that if they work and seize what’s available to them, life can get better. Those opportunities simply do not exist in their birth countries, and they recognize that. They want more and better; they push their kids to want more and better. Even if they aren’t as sophisticated as native born middle class parents, some pushing and some expectations are a whole lot better than no pushing and no expectations.

    • CaliforniaTeacher says:

      Let’s not forget that immigrants are a self-selecting group. Those that come here are likely to *already* possess initiative, ambition, and the desire to succeed. Those traits are passed on to their kids.

      • Um, that was mentioned in the first post. That’s what is meant by selection bias.

        However, as I also mentioned once or twice, that hasn’t been true of immigrants since immigration became less work (Hispanics and Asians) for a number of years now.

  3. It’s the parents’ job to fight that low culture. A parent who wants to have her/his child succeed can:

    1) Get as much education as you can – you can’t tell your kid that education is important, if your actions say it isn’t

    2) Work – even a low-level job is important – it tells that kid that you don’t expect the good things in life to be handed to you.

    3) Find some spiritual place that will support your efforts – I’m biased in favor of church, but find some way to instill values in your child.

    4) LIVE those values – if your church says that unmarried people shouldn’t be having sex, DON’T. You can talk a great deal, but your actions speak louder.

    5) Stay home at night, and help your kid learn to read. If the school isn’t teaching him/her, scout out Hooked on Phonics (it’ll improve your reading, too, if that needs help). Use your public library for educational games, books, CDs. DON’T have cable/DISH – your child will learn nothing of value there.

    6) If you live in a bad environment, MOVE! If you are surrounded by negative people – get away from them. Don’t passively accept your surroundings, take action to improve them. Spend less than your income. Save it, and use it to better your life.

    In other words, act like an immigrant.

    • It’s very easy to tell someone to “just move” but most of the time when folks are living in a crummy neighborhood, it’s because they cannot afford to live anywhere else. Moving to a new apartment requires saving up first and last month’s rent plus a hefty security deposit plus utility deposits plus the cost of renting a U-Haul or hiring movers. If the new neighborhood is not accessible via public transportation then there’s the added cost of purchasing a vehicle, and its registration, insurance, maintenance, and gas. If a relative is watching the child while the parents work, then moving may mean having to pay for a sitter, daycare, or an after-school program. All of these things really add up.

      I know a woman who had stayed for years with an alcoholic husband who beat her simply because she couldn’t afford to leave him 🙁

  4. Wonks Anonymous says:

    “all immigrant families, regardless of socioeconomic status, place high value on education”
    Is that true among Mexican families? From what I’ve heard they have the highest drop out rates among racial/ethnic groups in the U.S, higher than the native-born African-Americans discussed in this article.

  5. I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to black students. I think many of the most successful students in the US have at least one immigrant parent.

    You surely aren’t arguing that Somali students are among the most successful students? Because if you think that African immigrants have closed the achievement gap, think another fifty times.

    Or perhaps you’re thinking of all those sterling illegal Hispanic immigrant students who make the California school system such a sterling example of high quality?

    Yeah, that’s the ticket.

    Or, maybe, you are struggling to say that there’s a selection bias among immigrant populations. That was true long ago for Hispanics, but hasn’t been true in a while. It also hasn’t been true for Asians, in that it takes so little to get here that there’s no particular effort required for many of them to get here–not enough to show up in the numbers.

    The reverse is true for blacks, who originally had no voluntary immigrant population, but now have one big enough to test for.

    In short, it’s the culture, stupid.

    Tsk, tsk, Joanne. Insults!

    They broke it down by tribal group. That’s hardly likely to be culture.

    No, “in short, it’s selection bias for IQ, stupid.” Smarter people tend to have more ability and desire to up and leave, regardless of the population.

    • Cal, I was thinking of the Intel Science Search winners. Also, there are many students who have immigrant parents, but don’t stand out as “children of immigrants,” because their parents are college-educated, and the children are seen as US asian or US white students.

      The high school student who has a Russian father or mother isn’t seen as the child of immigrants, because there’s usually no language issue to solve. The child whose parent(s) immigrated will often outperform children whose grandparents or great-grandparents immigrated to this country, even if the parents or grandparents share the same ethnic background, in my opinion, because the immigrant parents will impart a strong work ethic.

  6. However, Marty McLaren, a board member and former teacher, blames “a culture of low expectations . . . dating back to the days of slavery” for American blacks’ poor performance. Faced with institutionalized racism, students give up, she said.

    1) Black students facing institutionalized racism? What decade is she living in? First of all, most (if not all) urban school districts are controlled by minorities, and have been for decades. She herself is a School Board member, if there is institutionalized racism is her district, she is responsible for it. Secondly, any institutionalized racism in America today favors minorities.

    2) The culture of low expectations does not extend back to slavery, nor does the destruction of the Black family. It was the government and welfare that destroyed the Black family and created the culture of dependency.

  7. georgelarson says:


    “They broke it down by tribal group. That’s hardly likely to be culture.”

    Why not?

    The chart is broken down by language, not tribe.

    It does not rule out culture.

  8. Yeah, it pretty much does.

    Not that the culture argument isn’t kicked all to hell and back by all sorts of other data, of course.

  9. georgelarson says:

    Even though I agree with you about selection bias, why doesn’t it account for all of the difference?

    • Since you agree with me about selection bias, why are we arguing?

      I’m just saying that it’s not culture. Tribal group/language would both suggest additional IQ selection bias much more than culture, when we’re comparing African immigrants. (note: I’m not saying that the tribal group/language to IQ pointer is definitive, just suggested).

  10. Funny story. I had a friend in college who was first generation from Nigeria and had loied there for a few years as a teen. He had a girlfriend that grew up in Africa and came to the US for college.
    The campus African heritage program had a day where they celebrated their heritage and the program faculty provided ‘ authentic’ dress. My friend and his gf went to it to see what food was being served…after they came back all they did was laugh ay the outfits…many of which were far from authentic and one that was actually authentic but inspired by conservative fundamentalist Islam. The girlfriend quipped that she came to the US to leave behind that culture.

    On topic- I’d say that there are two factors that make these immigrants exceptional compared to African Americans and Mexicans. First, no matter how bad Americans or Mexicans have it, as a group Africans have it worse, and appreciate the opportunity that America gives them. Second, immigrating from Africa is a much greater hurdle than from Mexico, so there’s a bit of selection bias there.

  11. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Nigerian immigrants tend to do very well. Not so much Somalis. That’s a gross generalization based on nothing but personal experience, though. All the eastern European immigrant kids I’ve had have major drug addiction issues. Smart — or were smart before they fried themselves.

  12. Nigerian immigrants tend to do very well. Not so much Somalis.

    Aren’t Somalis brought here through some sort of charity, while Nigerians get themselves here?

    Immigration in general is no longer the strong selection bias it was–except for Africans, ironically.

    • Many of the African immigrants in our area are refugees from Somalia and Sudan (at least originally, many spent time in refugee camps in other countries).

      The only Nigerian family I have known were professionals that came over for educational opportunities and jobs.

  13. greeneyeshade says:

    The Baltimore Sun, where I work, had a story Joanne posted within the last year about a group of students, mostly African immigrants, who made the national finals or semifinals of, if I remember, a geography competition. One of them told our reporter that she wouldn’t dare bring home a D; her parents wouldn’t stand for it. Tells you a lot, no?

  14. No.

    • Deirdre Mundy says:

      Well, it tells you something about that individual family, but it doesn’t tell you anything about POPULATIONS. You can’t make policy from “This girl with strict parents who value education gets good grades.” Especially since the “Wouldn’t dare bring home a D” may be in part because her parents have already based their expectations on what they know her abilities to be.

      For instance, school was easy for me. It was harder for my brother. My parents expected more from me than from my brother, because they knew that if *I* got a low grade, it was a result of slacking off/ procrastination/ disorganization. Where if he got the same B in math, it might have been his BEST work, not his worst work…..

      So while ‘high parental expectations’ may CORRELATE with good grades/SAT scores/ college success, it’s probably not be the cause. It might just be a normal parental reaction to the idea that you want your kids to do their best, and that this particular kid’s ‘best’ is better than many other kids’ bests.

      In an ideal educational system, we’d be better at gearing expectations to individual abilities. I taught kids who had to work really hard to ‘get’ Algebra by the end of senior year. Should we have expected them to make it through Calc and magically transform into STEM majors? I had other kids who should have been accelerated at a much faster rate. (Small school, so limited opportunities to get ahead.) Was it fair that we held them back because there was no where for them to go? All these kids were white, middle to upper class, and most were from intact homes. (Small town) — They’d all been in school together, with the same teachers, since they were 3. Clearly it wasn’t just the culture or the schools causing this disparity of abilities. There was something else going on……